A Long Shadow: Nazi Doctors, Moral Vulnerability and Contemporary Medical Culture
by Alessandra Colaianni, Journal of Medical Ethics, BMJ, June 27, 2012
This is a must read essay that should be widely disseminated far and wide, Ms. Colaianni discards the rationalizations and lame excuses the medical profession has made about the complicity of Nazi doctors in mass murder and other heinous crimes. No, they were not under threat if they chose not to participate–they joined the regime as willing partners.
More than 7% of all German physicians became members of the Nazi SS during World War II, compared with less than 1% of the general population. In so doing, these doctors willingly participated in genocide, something that should have been antithetical to the values of their chosen profession. The participation of physicians in torture and murder both before and after World War II is a disturbing legacy seldom discussed in medical school, and underrecognised in contemporary medicine. Is there something inherent in being a physician that promotes a transition from healer to murderer? With this historical background in mind, the author, a medical student, defines and reflects upon moral vulnerabilities still endemic to contemporary medical culture.
…What is perhaps more disturbing is the fact that he Nazi regime was neither the first nor the last tofacilitate the transformation of physicians into murderers. Physician involvement in torture and urder has been a stain on the profession hroughout history.1 In just the last decade, American physicians have been accused of murder in the orm of ‘mercy killing’ during the worst of Hurricane atrina2 and torturing prisoners in Guantánamo Bay. If we include murder committed in the ame of scientific advancement, the number of hysician perpetrators increases still further.
…by 1945, half of all German physicians had joined the Nazi party, 6% before Adolf Hitler gained power (by contrast, estimates of physician membership in the American Medical Association are far lower, approximately 20%).
‘after almost 50 years of postwar proceedings, proof has not been provided in a single case that someone who refused to participate in killing operations was shot, incarcerated, or penalised in any way’. Furthermore, a few doctors did refuse to participated and far from being killed for their actions, they were tolerated and even, in some cases, respected for their decisions. Physicians joined the Nazi party and the killing operations not at gunpoint, not by force, but of their own volition.
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